Slater welcomes back Tuilagi
Ed Slater has backed Manu Tuilgai to boost Leicester Tigers' bid for a top-four finish in the Aviva Premiership.
England centre Tuilagi has been sidelined with a pectoral muscle problem since September but makes his return in the Tigers' trip to Newcastle Falcons on Sunday.
And stand-in skipper Slater is confident Tuilagi will hit top form without delay and bolster Leicester's play-off charge.
"Manu is a huge part of the squad," said Slater. "He is a world-class player and with him back to fitness it will boost the rest of the squad at a key time."
Tuilagi partners Dan Bowden in Leicester's midfield and director of rugby Richard Cockerill expects him to be fresh despite his injury lay-off, especially as his chest injury has not stopped him running.
"Manu has been unlucky with the injury and he's just had to be patient," said Cockerill.
"But he has been training well, he's been able to do all his running and conditioning while the injury has healed and he's raring to go again."
Tigers full-back Mathew Tait will line up against younger brother and Newcastle counterpart Alex at Kingston Park, while rugby league convert Lee Smith makes his debut following his switch from Wakefield.
The 27-year-old won three consecutive Super League Grand Finals and a World Club Challenge at Leeds Rhinos, scoring seven tries in eight games for England.
And Falcons head coach Peter Russell is confident the cross-code convert is ready for the rigours of the Premiership.
"He's played a bit of union before and you could tell that straight away in training, in terms of the rucks and those sorts of things," said Russell.
"So that's stood him in good stead and he has settled very quickly. He's a real talent and we're all excited about seeing what he can do now.
"It's never an easy conversion, but his work ethic is fantastic and that will certainly mark him out."